Sober sex

In rehab I realized that I was a sexually experienced virgin who had never done it without a martini -- or 19.

By Augusten Burroughs
Published July 8, 2003 7:51PM (EDT)

After I went through rehab and got sober, I made a list of all the guys I'd ever slept with. The entries included names like "Under the Stairs Guy," "Taco Bell Counter Guy" and "'70s TV Icon Guy." By average American standards, the list was shockingly long: 63 names. But by Manhattan standards, and specifically gay Manhattan standards, my list was paltry, one step above a lifetime of solitary masturbation.

The truly startling discovery, however, was that with the exception of the first person on the list (my 12-year-old "You show me yours, I'll show you mine" scenario) alcohol had been involved in every encounter.

Maybe "involved" isn't the right word.

I'd been in a liquor-induced blackout every time I had sex.

In rehab they do not teach you how to have sex without the lubrication of a martini or 19. So at age 30, I found myself in a very odd position. I was a sexually experienced virgin. Even I could identify this as a problem.

I decided I needed to date and have sex and maybe even start a relationship. As a sober person. So I started to hang out in Barnes and Noble. Because if you don't drink, you shouldn't go to bars. In rehab they said, "If you keep going into barbershops, eventually you'll get a haircut." That's another thing about recovery. It's all in metaphors. So if you don't like talking about life in terms of small steps and puzzle pieces, you should just stay smashed.

Thus, it was in the Recovery and Addiction section of the Astor Place Barnes and Noble where I met Luciano.

"Hi," this hunk said in heavily accented English. "I seen you from over there," he pointed to the Fiction New Releases. "So I come over to say hi."

I was flattered and suspicious. My first thought was, he's homeless and wants cash. But he was too hot to be homeless. I stammered, "Oh, well." And then, "Thank you." I recognized this for what it was: my chance.

"Do you want to go to Starbucks?" he asked.

I was momentarily alarmed. Even in a certifiable hunk, an invitation to coffee within 30 seconds could mean only one thing: stalker.

But the rules couldn't apply here because I was desperate to have sober sex, and this man was Italian, from Italy, not Long Island. Although I'd never been to Italy, I'd seen documentaries on the Travel Channel. Italians held hands, they kissed. Of course they'd invite a perfect stranger to coffee.

Within 15 minutes, I had told him that I was an alcoholic, that I was 90 days out of rehab, that I was a writer and that my apartment was around the corner. As though I were ruptured, I was hemorrhaging information.

Luciano didn't seem to mind. He reached across the table and touched my face. "I want to make love to you," he said, in perfect English. Surely, this was the one phrase he'd made sure he knew before coming to America. He said it very well.

Moments later, he unbuckled his belt and let his shorts fall to my apartment floor. Of course, he was wearing no underwear. He had a large penis, uncircumcised. He was, in every way, my physical ideal. He unbuttoned my oxford shirt. But when he reached down to my cock and found it soft, he asked, "Is something the matter?"

I said, "I'm nervous."

I was in awe of his beauty. He had a sculpted body with hair that appeared to have been sketched on by an artist, in exactly the right places.

And yet. I'd never been more unaroused in my life. There was the sensation of being crushed from all sides, like diving too deep in the ocean. Failure gathered around my head like a cloud and I said, "You know, this isn't working. I'm sorry."

It didn't make any sense. He was incredibly hot. Luciano shrugged, as though we'd simply decided not to play handball after all. "Is OK," he said. "Is no problem."

We both dressed again and Luciano was gone.

Eventually it became clear: Alcohol had enabled me to have sex with people I didn't care about. It had been an airbag. But it had long since deployed, and taken with it my ability to have sex with another human being. That's one metaphor they skipped in rehab.

So then: How do you connect sex and love? I began to obsess over this. Had I ever connected them? And what if I couldn't?

Seven years, three therapists and one published book later, I met my partner. I am now able to have a physical relationship. And I learned that the way to connect sex and intimacy is by talking about the feelings you have at the moment of contact. For me, this included saying things like, "I feel like killing you" and "My mind just shut down."

It takes another person of remarkable self-assurance. Somebody who takes this not as rejection, but as progress. It requires such basic things as: making eye contact. And really reminding myself that I'm a grown-up, safe, loved.

It's pretty terrible that the only route to mental health is to talk to yourself like a Cosmo article. But I guess this just makes me a normal mess, as opposed to an alcoholic mess.

I still have my Guy List. But I hope I never add another name to it. Which I guess makes me a bit of a romantic.

Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs' many books include "Runnning With Scissors," "Dry," "Sellevision," "Magical Thinking" and "Possible Side Effects." His latest book is "This Is How."

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